Benny Shanon (2002) Cognition, Epistemology, Ontology. Psycoloquy: 13(007) Cognition Action (2)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 13(007): Cognition, Epistemology, Ontology

Book review of Praetorius on Cognition-Action

Benny Shanon
Department of Psychology
The Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel


In her book (Praetorious, 2000), Praetorious argues against the exclusion of epistemology and ontology by contemporary cognitive psychology. I am fully sympathetic to her view. In this commentary I place the cognitive approach in perspective and present further support for the conclusion advocated by Praetorius.


anti-Cartesianism, anti-representationalism, cognition, consciousness, epistemology, ontology, panpsychism, philosophy of psychology
1. Contemporary cognitive psychology ignores both epistemology and ontology. A claim which is commonly made is that the science of cognition is concerned with the psychological machinery that enables human beings to have the mental faculties they do. Most cognitive scientists maintain that what enables mental functioning is knowledge, and thus a major aspect of cognitive research concerns the psychological structures and processes that presumably are constitutive of our knowledge of the world. Knowing as such, however, is not a topic of investigation. In other words, that knowledge of the world is achieved is taken for granted. Neither this fact nor the manner in which it comes to be or the source of its veracity are being dealt with. All these topics are relegated to epistemology, and as such, are taken to be outside the scope of psychology proper. This disconcern of epistemology is often regarded as a main difference between scientific psychology and theoretical philosophical analysis. The eschewing of ontology is even more extreme. As far as the scientific psychologist is concerned, ontology pertains to speculative metaphysics. Essentially, like many other scientists, modern students of cognition assume a simple naive realism coupled with an autonomy of the mind relative to it. Cognitive scientists are concerned with the structures and processes of the minds of human being, not with anything outside.

2. This stance of modern cognitive science may be regarded as the extension of a long line of development in modern philosophy. Ancient philosophers were strongly concerned with ontology and metaphysics. Modern European philosophy marks a shift to espistemolgoy. Descartes (1637/1957, 1641/1960) opens his philosophical discourse with questioning the status of knowledge and establishing its veracity is the major theme of his work. Kant (1781/1953) went even further by arguing that what is there in reality, the noumena, cannot be known at all. All human beings perceive and entertain is a function of their cognitive apparatus. We can never step out of this apparatus and know things as they are. With this, Kant founded a conceptual framework for the characterization of this apparatus. Kant, in other words, put ontology aside, circumscribed philosophy to epistemology, and even laid the grounds for cognitive theorizing. The cognitive revolution of the 20th century went further still, and put aside not only ontology but also epistemology. Not only was the world put aside, even the relationship between mind and world is ignored - all which is of scientific concern is a mental system defined in formal computational terms with no reference to anything external to itself. Essentially, it is as if the world does not exist at all.

3. In her book Praetorious valiantly argues against this modern cognitive stance. She founds her discussion on what she terms The connectedness Principle and argues that psychology can ignore neither epistemology nor ontology. By Praetorious' view, human cognition is constituted by the interaction between cognitive agents and the world. This view is contrasted with both naturalism and constructivism (regarded as modern variants of the traditional view of materialism and idealism, respectively), both of which, she argues, are grounded in the classical Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body, and mind and world. [1]

4. In propounding her non-Cartesian, non-dualistic approach, Praetorius highlights the grounding of cognition in the world. According to him, a central facet of the world is the Other. In particular, for it to be validated, knowledge requires the existence of the other. Thus, in principle, cognition is not individualistic. Again, this is categorically different from what most cognitive scientists today believe. Interested in functions such as perception, language, thinking, memory, learning and consciousness, modern cognitive scientists define the locus of psychology as the inner domain of the mind. The subject matter of their investigation is the individual. Any cognitive processes that pertain to more than one individual are regarded as the integrated products of information processes in the minds of the individuals engaged in the social interaction at hand. In other words, the individual is primary and basic, the social secondary and derivative.

5. I am totally sympathetic to the view advocated by Praetorius. Indeed, in my The representational and the presentational (Shanon, 1993), I have come to the same conclusions. In this book, I criticize the representational-computational view of mind, at the time the dominant paradigm in the field (nowadays, the dominance is shared with the school of connectionism; yet, in many important respects, my critique also applies to connectionism). The representational-computational view of mind is defined by three tenets: (1) Human beings behave by virtue of the possession of knowledge; (2) This knowledge is constituted in symbolic structures, known as mental semantic representations; (3) All cognitive accomplishments are achieved by the application of computational processes upon the underlying mental representations. The task of the psychologist is to define the structure of the representations and the computational processes associated with them. In my book, I argue that all three tenets are wrong. Indeed, the explanatory force of the models based on them is illusionary.

6. In particular, the representations which are called semantic (that is, referring to something outside of themselves) are really syntactic forms that assume semanticity but in fact cannot account for it (see Searle, 1980; Shanon, 1991): The representational model is founded on thin air, and on magic. My technical critique of the representational-computational paradigm is based both on theoretical, conceptual analyses and on a detailed phenomenological analysis of practically all domains of cognition. The critique highlights seven factors which cognitive psychologists normally regard as outside their domain - factors which are non-purely-cognitive. For each of these factors two things are shown: That the study of cognition cannot explain them, and that if one is to understand cognition (even individualistic cognition) one cannot ignore them. Moreover, once these are looked at, it appears that they are more basic than cognitive factors defining the foundations of the standard modelling of mind. The factors at hand are context, the (non-abstract) medium of articulation, the phenomenological body (as distinct from the neurophysiolocal system), the physical environment, the social other, non-cognitive faculties (such as affect) and time. Today, I would also include ethical values in the list. When the involvement, and in fact - primacy, of these factors is appreciated a new picture of mind appears. Instead of semantic representation and computational information processing, the basic capability of the human cognitive system is being-and-acting in the world. Human behavior does manifest behaviors that involve the computational manipulations of internal representations, but these are the products of cognitive activity, not the basis of it.

7. When this alternative view is adopted, the locus of psychology (that is, the domain in which cognitive activity takes place) shifts from the inner region of the mind outwards - to the interface between organism and the world. Thus, even when one is studying so-called individual cognition one cannot be bounded to a conceptual framework based on an individualistic perspective. Indeed, even in the cognitive domain which is most private, the realm of subjective internal experience, what we do is acting as if in the external world of things, scenarios and other persons. Thinking in the privacy of our own minds we engage in silent monologues and dialogues (see Shanon, 1989), manipulate imagined objects and navigate an imagined world (see Shepard and Metzner, 1971; Kosslyn, 1980), and operate upon hypothetical, as if real, states of affairs (as in the mental models of Johnson-Laird, 1983). As I see it (Shanon, 1993, 1998), the wonderful "trick" of consciousness is its providing us with a virtual world in which we can act as if in the world when acting in the world is not actually possible (or menacing, or too costly). We have this ability because acting in the world is the fundamental feat of our cognition.

8. While mine (and that of Praetorius) is a minor view in cognitive science, it does have several distinguished precursors. The critique of psychological reification and the postulation of underlying, covert mental structures is grounded in Wittgenstein's later philosophy (1953, 1958). Being and action in the world are at the very centre of Heidegger's phenomenology (1962). More concerned with cognitive psychological issues in the contemporary sense is the French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty (1962), who--surprisingly--is not mentioned at all in Praetorius' book. The most important anti-representationalist voice in American psychology is that of the later James Gibson (1966, 1979) and his followers in the school of ecological psychology (see Michaels and Carello, 1981). Studying vision, Gibson pointed out that rather than mediated by internal representation, perception is direct and grounded in the coupling of organism and the world. Decades before, Vygotsky (1978) and his followers in the Soviet school of activity theory (see Wertsch 1981, 1985) put forth an analogous critique centring on the social other: individual cognition and its development cannot come to be without the societal web in which it is grounded and which is a sine qua non for its very functioning (the Vygotskian tradition, I should note, is not mentioned in the present book). The biologically-grounded theory of autopoiesis developed by Maturana and Varela (see Maturana, 1978; Maturana and Varela, 1980, 1987) is another non-orthodox, non-representationalist paradigm.

9. The relevance of both epistemology and ontology crucially manifests itself with consciousness, a topic that until less than a decade ago cognitive scientists shied away from, considering it to be outside the realm of science proper. Today the situation is radically different, and the question poignantly presents itself: Can consciousness be studied while confining oneself to the inner realm of the mind?

10. Most insightful observations in this regard were made half a century ago by Merleau-Ponty (1962). Being conscious, he argued, presupposes, or rather goes hand in hand, with trusting one's consciousness. Perceiving the world is not merely gaining a mental image (a representation) of the world, but being in touch with the world, and veridically so. When I see a flower, it is not only the case that I have an experience of seeing, I do actually see a flower which is there. Having only an image is simply not seeing (for details, the reader is referred to the chapter "Cogito" in work cited). In other words, ipso facto cognition involves epistemology and true knowledge of the real world.

11. The contemporary study of consciousness also brings in ontology. [2] Usually, this is manifest not in the work of psychologists but in that of quantum physicists (see, for instance, Stapp, 1993) as well as cognitive scientists and scholars veering towards mysticism (see Grof, 1975, 1998; Wilber, 1977; Goswami, 1990, 1995). The ontological considerations are invoked in conjunction with discussions of the origin of consciousness and its substantive (as distinct from either phenomenological or functional) nature. In line with the cognitive perspective defined at the outset of this commentary, such questions are outside of the scope of the orthodox psychological study of consciousness. Chalmers (1995a, 1995b) characterizes the psychological questions as easy, whereas the question of origin as hard (incidentally, neither consciousness nor Chalmers are mentioned in Praetorius book). [3]

12. As originally defined, Chalmers' hard problem has to do with biology, not physics or ontology. However, in Chalmers (1996) as well as in Rosenberg (forthcoming) ontology is explicitly brought into the cognitive discourse. Strikingly, the ontological view that these philosophers advocate is panpsychism; suggestions that the study of consciousness is bound to lead one to panpsychism were also made by Shepard and Hut (1996), Griffin (1998), de Quinsey (1994, 1999), and Hunt (2001). Especially provoking are the non-orthodox ideas of the English philosopher Peter Lloyd (1999) who expounds a Berkeleian-like monistic, idealistic metaphysics as the foundation for the study of consciousness. Expectedly, some of these works are substantially grounded in the work of Whitehead (see in particular Whitehead, 1929/1978) and follow his appreciation that if defined solely in psychological (or biological, or computational) terms the phenomenon of consciousness just cannot be accounted for. Since one cannot derive consciousness from matter (or, again, from either brain or computational processes) one had better regard consciousness as fundamental. Thus, in line with Praetorius' approach (although, independently and for other reasons), ontology seems to be infiltrating the cognitive scene. Is it that the pendulum defining the history of ideas is about to come full turn advancing to its erstwhile point of departure?


1. I shall note that an identical criticism of both materialism and idealism, and therefore a call for a third option, is found in the Gibsonian school of ecological psychology; see, for instance, Michaels and Carello (1981).

2. I am talking here of Western science. In Indian classical thought the essential link between consciousness and ontology was fundamental.

3. I accept neither this distinction nor the epithets associated with it, but this is a matter outside of the topic of this discussion; for pertinent criticism see Lowe (1995) and van Hut and Shepard (1996).


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